The History of Tea
Many ancient cultures have brew drinks by steeping plant leaves in hot water. These cultures include the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Celts, Indians and of course the Chinese.
In China the generic term for this was t' (pronounced tay). In Chinese mythology the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, was the first to discover tea. In 2737 B.C. he had instructed all in his court to boil water before its consumption in order to combat the many water borne illnesses prevalent at that time. One day while camping with his entourage, Shen Nung noticed a leaf fall in the pot of boiling water his cook was preparing. As Shen Nung was also a scholar and noted herbalist, he observed that the water changed color. He tentatively tasted the water and found the taste pleasing. From this beginning a tradition of brewing teas evolved.
We have no record of what plant dropped the first historic leaf in the emperor's water . But we can be relatively sure it was not Camellia sinensis since Chinese history deals rather extensively with the arrival of "cha' " (pronounced Chah) from India. Notice that the Chinese word for tea " cha' " is pronounced similarly and thu1s is likely derived from the Indian word for Cammelia sinensis, "Chai". It is also of note that Cha' tea in China is grown most widely in the region of Sichuan which lies centrally on the road from India to central China. Records indicate that the plant Cammelia Sinensis (Cha') came to China from India around 500 B.C. This is around 1300 years after our story about the emperor and his tea.
There are two common stories about whom was responsible for bringing Cha' from India to China. One story attributes the Buddhist monk Gan Lu who brought cha' to China after a pilgrimage to India. Visitors to China can visit Mt. Mending in Sichuan province and see the seven tea trees supposedly planted there by Gan Lu.
Another more dramatic story attributes the origin of tea to the founder of Zen Buddhism Bhodhidharma. Bhodhidharma traveled to China from India to teach Buddhism. When he arrived he went straight to a Shao-lin temple and sat in front of a wall to meditate on the best way to pass on his teachings in this unfamiliar culture. According to legend, he remained there for nine years. However, in the sixth year he became drowsy and fell momentarily asleep.
Upon awakening, to ensure that this did not happen again, he cut off his own eyelids so his eyes could no longer close. Where his eyelids fell the Chinese goddess, Quan Yin, caused tea trees to sprout. With Cha', future meditators had a natural source of caffeine so such radical measures would no longer be necessary.
Whatever the true story, it is definitely true that Cha' became the drink of choice in Buddhist monasteries throughout China and it was there that the art of tea growing, preparation and brewing was developed over the centuries.
This development culminated in the first definitive book on tea, the Cha' Ching by Buddhist monk, Lu Yu'. This book, in three separate volumes that took him five years to write. described in the most minute detail every aspect of the cultivation and preparation of Cha' including a mind bending brewing ritual involving 25 separate utensils.
So how did we get from "Cha' " to "Tea"? Well, thank a bunch of confused Europeans. The Portuguese began trading with China in the mid-1500's. Through aggressive protection of their trade route secrets, treaties with the Chinese Emperor and outright piracy they maintained a lock on trade between Europe and central China for many years. In 1610 the Dutch tried to establish trade with China as well but having been locked out of central China they ended up trading with offshore Chinese from Fujian province who had settled in Indonesia. Since the Chinese from Fujian spoke a different dialect than the Chinese from Canton and Sichuan, the Dutch were told the generic term "t' " rather than the specific term "Cha' " Thus the Dutch introduced the product to the rest of the world